Pot a long way from legalization

Despite easing of regulations elsewhere in the world, Japan's laws remain draconian


In early April, an Okinawa man in his late 20s visited activist Yusuke Sawada’s office in western Tokyo. He had just finished serving his latest prison term, one of many that have kept him behind bars for most of the past decade, depriving him of the formative years of his life.

The man, released April 4, shared the events that led to his incarcerations, telling Sawada and his group a story all too familiar.

Like many other visitors to Cannabist, the Okinawan was repeatedly locked up for possessing marijuana — sometimes less than half a gram, which would be considered negligible in other developed countries.

“Putting aside the debate on how dangerous marijuana is or not, it always strikes me as a human rights issue when a man is given such a heavy sentence for possession,” said Sawada, who set up the nonprofit organization Cannabist in 1999. “In many countries, his acts have already been decriminalized.”

Smoking cannabis may not be as harmless as some legalization activists insist, the bushy-haired 50-something former magazine editor acknowledged. But his group believes the penalties for minor pot use in Japan don’t fit the crime.

“Many young people are incarcerated for possession of small amounts of marijuana, even amounts that wouldn’t result in prison terms in other developed countries,” Sawada said.

Activists like Sawada say Japan is also moving too slowly on legalizing medical use of marijuana.

Unlike some countries, including the Netherlands where possession of up to 5 grams of marijuana would be considered a negligible amount and overlooked, Japanese police made about 2,000 pot-related arrests a year in the four-year period from 2005 to 2008. Some of those who possessed 0.5 gram of the drug have received suspended prison sentences of 10 months, while possession of more than 5 grams commonly results in a suspended sentence of one year at the least.

According to the latest statistics from the National Police Agency, a record-breaking 2,758 pot-related arrests were made in 2008, compared with 2,271 in 2007.

The conundrum is that although there were almost 500 more arrests in 2008, the marijuana seized totaled only 375.1 kg, compared with 437.8 kg in 2007.

The divergence was even more striking in 2005, when 643.1 kg of pot was confiscated from only 1,941 arrests.

Although the NPA’s arrest statistics include everyone from small-time users to big-time sellers, simply dividing the amount of marijuana impounded — 375.1 kg — by the number of arrests — 2,758 — shows that an average of only 136 grams of the drug was involved per arrest in 2008, compared with 331 grams in 2005.

The NPA also says that “62.7 percent of those arrested were juveniles or in their 20s” and that 85.5 percent of all those arrested were first-time offenders.

For Sawada and Cannabist, such figures indicate marijuana users in Japan are not serious criminals who have the potential of becoming a threat to the public. They believe taking away the formative years of a first-time offender is more damaging to society than the harm of possessing a small amount of marijuana.

For this reason, the group is calling on the government to adopt the practices of other countries and decriminalize minor amounts — possession of marijuana for personal use — and ease the penalties for blatant offenders.

The government, unsurprisingly, remains unwilling to yield any ground on its antidrug stance.

The Cannabis Control Law bans the import, export, cultivation, sale and purchase of marijuana buds and leaves. Despite the nation’s quickly changing demographics and studies pointing to the relative safety of marijuana use, violations — especially those involving commercial sales — can still lead to a 10-year prison term, a ¥3 million fine or both.

Japan doesn’t ban the possession or sale of hemp seeds and products that make use of hemp fibers, but even research involving cannabis buds and leaves, including for medical studies, is illegal.

The Drug Abuse Prevention Center, jointly supervised by the health ministry and the NPA, issues strong warnings that marijuana can damage the immune and respiratory systems and induce manic-depression.

The launch of the Democratic Party of Japan government last September raised hopes among activists that marijuana would edge toward legalization. But so far, nothing has changed.

In fact some lawmakers, including DPJ member Akihiro Hatsushika, have proposed tougher laws on marijuana use. Hatsushika, who sits on the Lower House Welfare Committee, said during deliberations that even hemp seeds should be banned.

“The fact that marijuana abusers repeatedly use the drug tells you that they are showing a certain level of addiction,” he says on his Web site. It is a “gateway” drug that leads to serious use of strong illegal stimulants and provides income to underworld syndicates at home and overseas, he said.

Sawada of Cannabist did his share of drugs in the 1970s and joined protests against the Vietnam War, but he said his group’s true goal isn’t to promote pot but to correct a human rights matter that has been too long neglected in this country.

After more than a decade of fruitless appeals, Sawada said he intends to try a different tack during the Marijuana March in Tokyo on May 23. He said he plans to make impartial media reporting on marijuana use the centerpiece of this year’s parade.

Cannabist, which has some 4,500 members, has organized the annual event since 2001. While past rallies have attracted as many as 1,000 people, the major news outlets tend to neglect them and stick with what the activists call misleading data spoon-fed to them by the government.

Sawada noted that both the government and media continue to describe marijuana as an introductory-level drug that leads to use of stronger substances, including cocaine. Cannabist claims that both statistics and recent studies prove otherwise.

“Statistics by the NPA show that marijuana-related arrests have grown, but arrests related to heavier drugs have diminished,” Sawada said.

“I’ve talked to some editors at major newspapers and asked why they can’t print both sides of the argument surrounding marijuana use.”

During these exchanges, Sawada was surprised to learn that some of the editors acknowledge Cannabist’s cause but were reluctant to change the way they cover the issue.

“They were simply nervous about reporting a different perspective on the issue, because it would contradict their past articles,” he explained. “That made me feel strongly that focusing on spreading our side of the story is important to changing the situation.”

Cannabist and Sawada spent the Golden Week holidays preparing the 10th annual Marijuana March, which, if the weather is right, could attract more than 1,000 people. Surprisingly, the rallies have a sparkling record of zero arrests.

“We’ve had claims filed over the noise we make, but no serious complaints in the past,” member Mari Matsumoto said. “In fact, it’s a very peaceful event.”

According to Sawada, more than 300 marches will be held worldwide in May calling for the decriminalization of pot.

“But the rally in Japan will be the only one where participants will not be smoking pot,” he said, stressing that he is pursuing a bigger cause.